Three Questions with Olivier Burtin, Doctoral Student at Princeton University
Three Questions is an initiative to share the value that our faculty, students, and others in the UNT community derive from using the Unique Collections at UNT Libraries.
How important are Unique Collections in your teaching, learning or research?
I am writing a doctoral dissertation about the American Legion and veterans’ politics from World War II to the Vietnam era. A central goal of my project is to be more than just the institutional history of one organization and to use the Legion as a window into the broader cultural, political, and social dynamics of the “veteran community” in the postwar era. This is why, although I have conducted extensive research at the Legion’s own national archives in Indianapolis, I did not want to limit my perspective to these documents. Not only did I seek to avoid uncritically reproducing the “view from within” that this kind of organizational archives inescapably conveys, but I sought to tell a story that would not be only about the national level of the Legion’s bureaucracy. For all these reasons, I have put particular emphasis on gathering archives from some of the Legion’s local Posts and state chapters, as well as individual collections of the Legion’s National Commanders. Only a handful of the latter are available for the post-World War II period, which is why I was very happy to be able to visit Alvin Owsley’s at UNT.
How have Unique Collections changed the way you approach your research, teaching or learning?
Owsley was National Commander of the Legion in 1922-1923 and remained involved in the group’s activities throughout his life. His correspondence with other high-level Legion leaders provided me with invaluable insights into the inner workings of a group notorious (at the time) for being dominated by an elite core of “kingmakers.” More specifically, I sought to document his role as the Chairman of the Legion’s Americanism Endowment Fund. This fund was created in 1943 with an initial endowment of ten million dollars, in an effort to spread pro-business and anti-communist ideas in the United States in partnership with the National Association of Manufacturers. I am not aware of anyone having done prior research on the Fund, and the Owsley Collection contained the essential documents that I needed to determine its impact on postwar politics.
What do you want others to know about your research?
I am always surprised at how under-researched the history of U.S military veterans in the 20th century is. When I started my dissertation two years ago, I only had a vague idea that this field had been somewhat neglected by historians. I realize now that we have barely even touched the surface. There is so much to explore, in fact, that I had to decide early on where to put the limits of my project. If I had tried to be comprehensive, the result would probably have been not one but two or three dissertations. On the other hand, this challenge is precisely what I find most exciting about my research. I am not merely interpreting familiar events in an innovative way: rather, every chapter that I write is about something completely new that you won’t find in textbooks or even in the secondary literature on the period. Hopefully, more scholars will become interested in this topic in the future and help fill in the gaps that I was unable to cover.
Olivier Burtin is a fifth-year graduate student in History at Princeton University. He graduated from Sciences Po (Paris) in 2011 with a M.A. in History.